The Egyptian Hall was an exhibition hall in Piccadilly, London, designed by English architect Peter Frederick Robinson and built in 1812 in the ancient Egyptian style. The hall was first used for art exhibits, and later for popular entertainments such as magic and spiritualism shows and lectures that earned it the name “England’s Home of Mystery“.
In this article we explore the history and Egyptian Hall, its main shows and its transformation into one of London’s most iconic buildings.
The Creation of Egyptian Hall and Bullock's Museum
The Egyptian Hall was commissioned by William Bullock, an English traveller, naturalist and antiquarian. The Hall was planned to be a museum to house his collection, which included curiosities brought back from the South Seas by members of Captain James Cook‘s expeditions.
The building was the first in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style, and was completed in 1812 at a cost of £16,000. The architect that designed the hall, Peter Frederick Robinson, who had also come up with the beautiful Brighton Pavilion in 1801–02, took inspiration from the temple at Denderah in Egypt for the museum. The style included inclined pilasters and sides covered with hieroglyphics, as well as statues and Egyptian-inspired glass motives.
Bullock used the museum to display his collection of Napoleonic era relics as well as his ethnographic and natural history assemblage, as well as various exhibits for which he sold tickets. His Museum was at one time one of the most popular exhibitions in London, comprising curiosities from the South Sea, Africa, and North and South America.
In 1819, Bullock sold history collection at auction and converted the museum into an art and exhibition hall. As such, it had one clear advantage: It was the only London building able to exhibit really large works.
Among those in display were The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem by Benjamin Robert Haydon, Giovanni Battista Belzoni‘s show of the tomb of Seti I, and James Ward‘s gigantic Allegory of Waterloo.
Less conventional shows were also put up: One time in 1822, Bullock invited a family of Laplanders with their reindeer to be displayed in front of a painted backdrop, and give short sleigh-rides to visitors.
Admission for most of these shows cost one shilling.
George Lackington's Watercolours and the Living Skeleton
In 1825, Egyptian Hall was sold to bookseller George Lackington. Lackington had started work in the business (inherited from his uncle) in Chiswell Street, London, at the age of 13. Selling cheaply in large quantities, for cash only, Lackington, Allen, & Co.‘s large shop in Finsbury Square was a successful business with over 800,000 books listed in their 1803 catalogue.
Lackington used the facilities of Egyptian Hall to show panoramas, art exhibits (in particular watercolours), and entertainment productions. The old Water-Colour Society and Society of Painters in Water Colours exhibited there, and the hall housed works from Joseph Mallord William Turner for a number of years.
But Lackington’s plan included more than watercolours. The exhibitions shown at Egyptian Hall were to change significantly in the years to come.
In 1825 the “Living Skeleton” or “Anatomic Vivante” (Claude Amboise Seurat) was fist presented. He was a French man, 5 feet 7½ inches tall, that consisted of “nothing but skin and bone – he weighed only 77¾ lbs. Seurat’s tours across Europe aroused controversy extensive interest from both the public and the medical establishment, and became an instant success at Egyptian Hall.
Four years later, in 1829, “two youths of eighteen, natives of Siam, united by a short band at the pit of the stomach – two perfect bodies, bound together by an inseparable link” made their appearance at the Hall. They were called the Siamese Twins (Chang and Eng Bunker) and they had been widely exhibited as curiosities under the control of their managers until they became independent and began touring on their own. In 1839, after a decade of financial success, the twins quit touring and settled in North Carolina.
The Two-Headed Nightingale (Millie and Christine McKoy) was another popular visitor to the Egyptian Hall. The American conjoined twins, who could speak five languages, travelled the world performing song and dance for entertainment and overcoming years of slavery, forced medical observations, and forced participation in fairs and freak shows.
Maskelyne and Cooke: England's Home of Mystery is Born
In 1873 theatre manager William Morton took on the management of the Hall and modified it for his protegees, Maskelyne and Cooke. The team’s run there would last a remarkable 31 years.
John Nevil Maskelyne was a Victorian magician and inventor (he created the door lock for London toilets!) who had became interested in conjuring after watching a stage performance at his local Town Hall by the fraudulent spiritualists, the American Davenport brothers.
With the help of his friend, cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he built a version of the gigantic cabinet the brothers had used for one of their illusions and revealed the trickery to the public at a show in Cheltenham in June 1865. Inspired by the acclaim they received, the two men repeated their show several times, taking it to nearby towns.
An agent named William Morton, who saw their show in Liverpool, offered to finance a tour. Morton ended up being their manager for a total of 20 years, securing them deals at The Crystal Palace and Egyptian Hall, which Morton renovated, put in a new stage and opened at the end of 1873.
Maskelyne was adept at working out the principles of illusions, one of his best-known being levitation.
In 1894, Maskelyne wrote the book Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. The book became an instant hit and is to this day considered to be a classic gambling book.
He was a member of The Magic Circle and, like Harry Houdini, tried to dispel the notion of supernatural powers – although spiritualist Alfred Russel Wallace repeatedly stated that Maskelyne possessed them.
Many illusions were staged at Egyptian Hall, including the exposition of fraudulent spiritualistic manifestations then being practised by charlatans.
Maskelyne’s show moved to St. George’s Hall (which became known as Maskelyne’s Theatre), in 1905. That’s the year the Egyptian Hall was demolished to make room for blocks of flats and offices at 170–173 Piccadilly.
Nothing was left of the beautiful building inspired by Denderah that had housed the most surprising exhibits. But the memory of Egyptian Hall and those that walked its rooms will survive for centuries as one of Victorian London’s most interesting places.